Yesterday, something very unexpected happened.
In their Fall General Assembly for 2017, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) held votes on several items, among them, the chairmanship for their pro-life committee. Faced with a choice between a bishop with a pro-life track record and a reliably progressive cardinal who has made serious compromises on life and doctrinal issues, the bishops — expected by many to follow “tradition” and vote for the man of higher ecclesiastical rank — broke with protocol and chose the pro-life candidate instead.
Two Very Different Candidates
The first of the two candidates presented for the position was Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas. Naumann has been described as a “conservative” prelate who proved his pro-life bona fides 2008 when he refused Communion to then-Governor Kethleen Sebelius because of her support of abortion. Earlier this year, he made another unpopular stand for life when he issued a pastoral encyclical that initiated the cutting of diocesan ties with the Girl Scouts of America as a result of their promotion of transgenderism and abortion. “It is essential,” he said, “that all youth programs at our parishes affirm virtues and values consistent with our Catholic faith.” The Girl Scouts, Naumann explained, “are no longer a compatible partner in helping us form young women with the virtues and values of the Gospel.” He went on to say that the time had come for Christians to recognize that to “follow Jesus and his Gospel will often require us to be counter-cultural.”
The second candidate for the pro-life chairmanship was Cardinal Blase Cupich, a progressive small-town bishop who had languished in dioceses like Rapid City, South Dakota and Spokane, Washington until he was fast-tracked up the ecclesiastical ladder by Pope Francis when he was appointed Archbishop of Chicago — America’s third-largest Catholic archdiocese — in 2014. His appointment came after the pope accepted the mandatory resignation of his predecessor, Cardinal Francis George, who died five months later after a lengthy battle with cancer, and was rumored to have been less-than-thrilled with the choice of his successor. Cupich was elevated to cardinal the following year, in 2016. Unlike Nuamann, Cupich earned a reputation for compromise on matters of importance in the Catholic faith in general, and on life issues in particular. Some well-known examples:
- While bishop of Rapid City, he physically locked members of the Latin Mass community out of their chapel during the Easter Triduum, euphemistically describing his coercive measure as “an opportunity on an annual basis for us to all worship together, for one moment of unity as a Catholic church,” and accusing them of finding it “so difficult, on the day of the Lord’s death, to celebrate with their bishop, who is the sign of the Lord’s unity”.
- While bishop of Spokane, he was reported to have discouraged priests from being involved in protesting abortion clinics with the 40 Days for Life campaign, allegedly not wanting them associated with pro-life “extremists”.
- In November of 2014, just weeks after his installment as Archbishop of Chicago, Cupich said he would not enforce Canon 915, and would give Holy Communion to pro-abortion politicians.
- In May, 2015, he was seen cozying up with pro-abortion “Catholic” Senator Dick Durbin in order to promote “immigration reform.” That same month, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg wrote, after a conversation with Cupich on the topic, said that despite his official lack of support for legalizing same-sex marriage, “To me, everything the archbishop said, except for his conclusions, is an argument for gay marriage.”
- In August, 2015, Cupich bizarrely morally equated the evil of abortion to other issues of Social Justice like a “broken immigration system” and “racism”.
- In October, 2015, at the conclusion of the second synod on the family, Cupich said at a Vatican press conference that conscience is “inviolable”. “He believes,” reported John-Henry Westen and Pete Baklinski of LifeSiteNews, “that divorced and remarried couples could be permitted to receive the sacraments, if they have ‘come to a decision’ to do so ‘in good conscience’” – theological reasoning that he indicated in response to a follow-up question would also apply to gay couples.”
The Right People Are Unhappy
In an article for the Wall Street Journal about the unusual vote, Ian Lovett and Francis X. Rocca said that Naumann’s victory signaled “resistance to Pope Francis’s vision for the church among the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S.” The vote, they said, “breaks a longstanding tradition of the position being held by a cardinal—an unusual lapse of deference in a highly rank-conscious body—and suggests that Catholic leaders in the U.S. remain largely resistant to the changes Pope Francis is trying to bring to the church.”
Lovett and Rocca say that Cupich had planned to expand the pro-life committee’s purview “to include other issues like the death penalty, health care and poverty—a list more in line with the priorities Pope Francis advocated for.”
At the National Catholic Reporter, the ever-histrionic Michael Sean Winters took the matter further, stating that electing Naumann over Cupich “amounted to the bishops giving the middle finger to Pope Francis.”
“Underneath the issue of how to approach pro-life issues,” Winters writes, lay a deeper question: “How do the bishops feel about Pope Francis?”
Cupich was plucked out of the relatively small diocese of Spokane by Francis and sent to Chicago, his first major appointment in the U.S. hierarchy. Francis also named Cupich to the Congregation for Bishops which vets candidates for the episcopacy and, consequently, is charged with shaping the next generation of leaders in the church.
Winters said that he did not see any other choice before the voting bishops as “stark” as the decision between Cupich and Naumann.
Massimo Faggioli, a papal advocate and professor of theology at Villanova University who has become increasingly outspoken against orthodox critics of the papacy in recent months, tweeted after the vote that “The US bishops have obviously the right to elect whomever they want as head of committees. But it is clear since 2013 that a majority of them sees the message of Francis’ pontificate, esp. on life and marriage, as not adequate for the Catholic Church in the USA.”
Bellwether or Blip?
As much as I want to believe that Faggioli is correct — that a majority of the US bishops see Francis’ message as inadequate — I’m not ready to pop open any champagne. It’s going to take more than one vote to demonstrate that this is the beginning of a trend.
Still, talk of growing dissatisfaction with this pope — buyer’s remorse, as it were — has been fairly consistent from early on, and continues to grow. Not long into the Francis papacy, anonymous sources began hinting at the discontent of a number of cardinals — even those who helped elect him — with his style of governance. Around the time he dressed down the curia during his 2014 Christmas address, I recall having seen him referred to as a “Latin American dictator” — a term Catholic journalist and blogger Damian Thompson of The Spectator headlined with earlier this year. One source I spoke to during the early days of the papacy who had spent time at the Holy See said that there was a general feeling of dislike toward the pope from the people who worked for the Vatican, simply because he was a scold, and treats his subordinates poorly. Priests around the world have expressed their weariness, both publicly and privately, of constantly being insulted by their shepherd in chief as he paints them as petty, vain, hard-hearted, or unconcerned. Earlier this year, a story in the London Times alleged that a group of the cardinals who worked to elect Francis have become so concerned with the damage he is doing that they want him to resign, to be replaced by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin. (Parolin, by the way, has recently raised his public profile and diplomatic outreach significantly, in a way that looks a lot like campaigning.) Still, a source quoted at the time made clear that disenchantment is a far cry from pending action:
A good number of the majority that voted for Bergoglio in 2013 have come to regret their decision, but I don’t think it’s plausible that members of the hierarchy will pressure the Pope to resign. Those who know him know it would be useless. [He] has a very authoritarian streak. He won’t resign until he has completed his revolutionary reforms, which are causing enormous harm.
Nevertheless, any shift in the prevailing wind would be welcome. Cardinal Cupich was viewed by at least one member of the clergy I spoke with as a likely instigator behind the forced resignation of Fr. Thomas Weinandy from his doctrinal post at the USCCB following his letter criticizing the pope. Weinandy had held the position for some time. It’s entirely possible that for many of the more conservative bishops who have quietly been growing more concerned, such a naked display of intolerance towards a legitimate expression of conscience from one of their own trusted advisers — especially after that adviser made note of the silencing of critical voices as one of the chief problems under this pontificate — was a bridge too far.
Time will tell if this is just a blip on the radar, or the beginning of something bigger.